GAME OF THE WEEK
HURRICANES v BRUMBIES
When: Friday May 18, 7.35pm
Where: Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Referee: Mark Lawrence (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 17, Brumbies 9, Hurricanes 8
In Wellington: Played 7, Hurricanes 4, Brumbies 3
Last match: Round 8, April 9, 2011: Brumbies beat Hurricanes 17-16 at Canberra Stadium, Canberra
THE COMPETITION’S surprise packets do battle in a vital clash which could see the loser facing a tougher qualification task with just four more rounds until the playoffs.
This is the sole Super Rugby fixture on the Friday night, so the punters can focus in tightly on why these two sides, with unfancied rosters in February, are doing well in May.
The Brumbies are off the bye but have a No 10 crisis which they have tried to alleviate with the signing of former Waratah Peter Hewat.
Coach Jake White will have to again be smart with his game plan, as he has been all season.
His charges have won three of their last four and have looked in good nick, the likes of Scott Fardy and Ben Alexander to the fore in the pack with Henry Speight and Joe Tomane offering finishing power on the wings. The former will mark up against the blockbusting Julian Savea, who scored the match-winning try last weekend.
The Hurricanes have posted wins over the Blues and Highlanders in the last two rounds.
Neither victory has been especially convincing, but competition points are like gold at this time of year. Halfback TJ Perenara will be anxious to prove some points after missing a place in the top four halfbacks named in the All Blacks training squad.
There are some juicy match-ups with the openside flanker battle between Michael Hooper and Karl Lowe sure to be a case of no holds barred. At hooker, Stephen Moore will get the chance to teach Dane Coles some old tricks. Pat McCabe will need to shut down Conrad Smith in midfield.
There should be a sizeable crowd on hand for this one, and Savea on the burst should be worth the price of admission alone.
Our prediction: Hurricanes 1-12
HIGHLANDERS v BULLS
When: Saturday May 19, 5.30pm
Where: Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
Referee: Ian Smith (Australia)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Highlanders 10, Bulls 5, Drawn 1
In Dunedin: Played 4, Highlanders 3, Bulls 1
Last match: Round 3, March 5, 2011: Highlanders beat Bulls 35-28 at Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria
THE BULLS were once poor tourists, but they have strung together two meritorious if not entirely convincing wins in Australia as they prepare for the Highlanders in a city in which they have won just once before, in 2007.
There will be plenty of doubters about the Highlanders’ playoffs credentials after they fell 26-20 last Saturday to the Hurricanes. But Jamie Mackintosh will be back, after taking his first break in 2012, and Jamie Joseph will take heart that they were really only beaten by some individual brilliance from Julian Savea.
The Bulls have lost Deon Stegmann to a broken arm, but have replaced him with a rugged footballer in Dewald Potgieter, while Dean Greyling is back from a flying visit home on paternity leave. Wynand Olivier could be back to stiffen up the midfield.
Our prediction: Bulls 1-12
CRUSADERS v BLUES
When: Saturday May 19, 7.35pm
Where: AMI Stadium, Christchurch
Referee: Bryce Lawrence (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 20, Crusaders 11, Blues 9
In Christchurch: Played 8, Crusaders 5, Blues 3
Last match: Round 1, February 24, 2012: Crusaders beat Blues 19-18 at Eden Park, Auckland
THE CRUSADERS often have one poor match which stains their season.
They would like to think that was last week in the 19-28 defeat in Melbourne, where they were flat and frail in the face of a robust, fiery Rebels unit. This followed the scratchy win over the Reds which followed three fine victories on the bounce.
So what does that mean for the Blues? Probably nothing positive, as the Crusaders should be fired up back in front of their home crowd and desperate for a quality performance to keep pace with a wildcard or even conference winner berth.
The state of Kieran Read’s back is concerning, as is Dan Carter’s groin. But not as concerning as the state of Charlie Faumuina’s calf. The Crusaders scrum will be looking to go to work on the Blues’ tighthead side.
Our prediction: Crusaders 13+
REDS v LIONS
When: Saturday May 19, 7.40pm (9.40pm NZT)
Where: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Referee: Keith Brown (New Zealand)
Head-to-Head: Played 16, Reds 12, Lions 3, Drawn 1
In Brisbane: Played 7, Reds 5, Lions 2
Last match: Round 7, April 2, 2011: Reds beat Lions 30-25 at Coca-Cola Park, Johannesburg
LOGIC WOULD suggest that the Reds will pound the Lions into the Suncorp turf.
That follows the Reds’ pulsating 42-27 victory over the Chiefs, who were on a nine-match winning streak.
The manner in which the likes of Liam Gill, Will Genia, Mike Harris and Luke Morahan played means the Reds are right back in the thick of the playoffs race.
The Lions, conversely, still have another 10 days on tour before they head back to the comforts of home. They were woeful against the mediocre Blues, losing 25-3 in match in which they failed to fire a shot.
John Mitchell must be at his wits’ end, and if it were not for the form of Jaco Taute and Ruan Botha, not to mention Josh Strauss’ beard, then he would have nothing at all to show for this tour.
Our prediction: Reds 13+
CHEETAHS v SHARKS
When: Saturday May 19, 5.05pm (3.05am NZT, May 20)
Where: Free State Stadium, Bloemfontein
Referee: Jonathan Kaplan (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 8, Cheetahs 4, Sharks 4
In Bloemfontein: Played 4, Cheetahs 2, Sharks 2
Last match: Round 16, June 4, 2011: Sharks beat Cheetahs 23-18 at Vodacom Park, Bloemfontein
BEST OF luck if you set the alarm for this one.
But it does have the potential to be close, and nothing separates these two sides on the head to head stats.
The Cheetahs pushed the Stormers close in Cape Town, staging a rousing comeback before falling short 14-16. They may be a team that plays attractive footy, but coach Naka Drotske will want them to post more wins before the July 13 SARU final vote on the make-up of the 2013 Super Rugby franchises.
The Sharks have started to flex their muscle, and put away the Force to the tune of 53-11 last weekend. Wing Lwazi Mvovo showed his pace and No 8 Keegan Daniel his class in the big win.
Expect the Cheetahs to again throw caution to the wind and try and give Willie le Roux plenty of ball.
Our prediction: Sharks 1-12
STORMERS v WARATAHS
When: Saturday May 19, 7.10pm (5.10am NZT, May 20)
Where: Newlands, Cape Town
Referee: Craig Joubert (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 15, Stormers 8, Waratahs 6, Drawn 1
In Cape Town: Played 8, Stormers 4, Waratahs 3, Drawn 1
Last match: Semifinal, May 22, 2010: Stormers beat Waratahs 25-6 at Newlands, Cape Town
THE STORMERS hardly covered themselves with glory in the 16-14 narrow squeak against the Cheetahs last weekend, but winning ugly is critical in this competition.
This clash has featured some dour matches down the years, and the Waratahs are now just about out of contention, as they contemplate a 4-7 record in 2012.
They did play some good footy at times in the 24-27 loss to the Bulls, and welcome back Drew Mitchell to the squad, but there is too much unevenness to their play.
Hooker Tatafu Polota-Nau is in the squad, and should suit up after his well-publicised concussion troubles.
Flanker Siya Kolisi and lock Andries Bekker are lying in wait for the travel-weary Waratahs, so expect a battering in the forwards before Peter Grant plays field position and slots the goals.
Our prediction: Stormers 13+
FORCE v REBELS
When: Sunday May 20, 2.35pm (6.35pm NZT)
Where: nib Stadium, Perth
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Head-to-Head: Played 3, Rebels 2, Force 1
In Perth: Played 1, Rebels 1, Force 0
Last match: Round 5, March 23, 2012: Rebels beat Force 30-29 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
THE WESTERN Force will have sat bolt upright in South Africa watching the Melbourne Rebels uncork a massive upset of the Crusaders.
They will have watched with interest the energy brought by the pack, where loosies Michael Lipman and Gareth Delve more than held their own against more vaunted opponents.
Nick Cummins and Winston Stanley will have watched intently as Stirling Mortlock added real value off the bench, not to mention Kurtley Beale’s capers at No 10.
It is amazing to think the Rebels could play like this without James O’Connor and Danny Cipriani, but they did.
In turn the Force are licking their wounds after a 53-11 hiding at the hands of the Sharks. Defence and discipline were real issues. It might have been the Rebels we were talking about, until last weekend’s boilover.
Our prediction: Rebels 1-12
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.